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Managing dairy cattle in cold weather

Farmers don’t get to take a snow or frigid weather day from caring for their livestock.

We need to think about what went well when keeping our animals safe and well-cared for during the most recent storms and cold spells we've experienced. We also need to look forward to see what we can do to prepare for the next time the thermometer takes a nosedive.

Our cattle work to maintain a constant core body temperature of about 101ºF. During the winter months, the need for cattle to maintain their core body temperature becomes a challenge and can cause cold stress.

Cold stress in cattle is when their body temperature drops because their body’s natural metabolic processes plus the heat provided by a heavy winter coat are not enough to keep them warm. If a cow has a dry, heavy winter coat, she can withstand temperatures below 18ºF before feeling any cold stress.

When cold stressed, cattle will change their behavior such as seeking shelter to avoid the cold. With good body condition, a clean, dry coat, shelter, fresh water and good nutrition, dairy cattle can tolerate temperatures well below zero.

How cattle prepare for winter

Cattle have three different process to prepare themselves for winter:

  • Hair coat: Cattle can grow long, thick coats to provide insulation against cold weather. If cattle are not exposed to the cold such as in a warm tie stall barn, they acclimate to the temperature of their given environment. The hair coat needs to stay clean and dry to provide the best insulation protection for the cow.

  • Body condition: Heifers and dry cows tend to put on more weight in the winter months. Be sure to talk with your nutritionist ahead of time to make sure that your heifers and dry cows have enough energy in their diet to help protect them from the cold weather.

  • Increase metabolic rate: Cows naturally adjust their metabolic rate to help produce more heat to help maintain their core body temperature. This need for energy takes these resources away from other body functions such as milk production if a higher energy diet is not provided.

Caring for cattle cared during cold weather


Provide a shelter for cattle to get them out of the elements. A wind break is one solution; however, providing a roof is ideal. Providing deep, clean, dry bedding is essential to help keep the animals warm. Remember that a clean dry hair coat provides significantly better insulation than a dirty, wet hair coat. Also take time to evaluate your building for drafts that can create a problem. Look around doors, windows and curtains for areas that should be sealed.


Cows need more calories to keep themselves warm, especially cows with less than moderate body condition. Discuss with your nutritionist the ideal options for your herd and facilities. Consider sorting out thin cows or heifers in order to provide them more specialized care such as a higher energy ration and less crowded, draft-free shelter.


Be sure to be checking your waterer or water tanks regularly for frozen water. Frozen water or excessively cold water significantly limit water and feed intake of our cattle. Cows can draw water at a rate of 3 to 5 gallons per minute, so the water supply and system need to keep up with demand. Cows prefer the temperature of the water to be between 40 and 65ºF. Consider utilizing a thermometer to determine if tank heaters and waterer heating elements are in proper working order.

Herd health

Some cows are designed to handle the cold better than others. Keep a close eye on your herd to watch for additional signs of stress caused by cold weather. Older cows, cows with previous health issues, and calves are the groups most susceptible to the cold weather. Also keep a close eye for potential frostbite to occur. Cow leaving the milking barn or parlor with wet teats or the ears of calves are two of the first spots that get frostbite exposure.

Foot traction

Prevent the accumulation of ice as much as possible especially on walking surfaces for both you and your animals. Consider ruffing up the surface and adding sand or gravel for traction.

How did you manage the cold weather during the end of January? Please consider some of these suggestions to keep your herd safe and healthy this winter season.

Karen Johnson, Extension educator in Ag Production Systems, McCleod County

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